The Good Pirates: a rant about piracy and self-justification

In an idle moment, I wondered if there were any early reviews of my next book, A Case of Possession, up on blogs yet. (There was one. They liked it. Yay!)

I also found a link to a chat thread, which was in a forum of people discussing hotly anticipated new releases. Someone mentioned that there were half a dozen sequels or series titles that they really wanted to read, one of them mine.

The discussion was on a pirate site.

Quite literally, someone sat down and typed (I paraphrase): I’m really looking forward to authors I liked continuing to write more about the characters I love, please can someone put up a link so I can download their work for free.

Ah, piracy. We hear the same thing trotted out again and again: People will pay for books if they like them. The only people who will steal them would never have bought them so it’s no loss. If ebooks were priced more reasonably, more people would pay for them. Oh, yours is less than the price of a half of lager? Well, you should still be happy if your book is pirated, because loads more people will read you and buy your other books. It’s publicity, isn’t it? It’s exposure. It’s profile-building.

Which all sounds fantastic except that it quite clearly isn’t true.  Those people aren’t thinking, ‘I should buy the second book and support the author I like,’ they’re thinking, ‘I can get this one free too! And the next. And the next. Oh, I wonder why she’s stopped writing? Never mind, there’s a lot of other books out there.’

I had an ill-tempered Twitter run-in with someone whose website was offering free downloads of my book. He gave out all the usual stuff about how content should be free, it was to my benefit in the long run, he was thinking about the readers, he supported authors, etc etc.  But the thing is: his site makes money by advertising. Advertisers pay to be on his site because it is popular. It is popular because you can download free ebooks there. Other people’s books, offered for free, are what drive his revenue.

Because content should be free, but advertising space is valuable.

Here’s the thing: it’s not the money that upsets me (which is really not most authors’ driving force, luckily). It’s not the lost sales figures. It’s the fact of someone stealing my stuff, and telling me it’s for my own good. It’s the assumption that my writing is worth nothing and I should be grateful that someone’s deigned to read it for free. It’s the utter, casual disrespect.

I am well aware the genie is out of the bottle on piracy. It can’t be stopped, people say, so take it gracefully. If it’s inevitable, lie back and enjoy it. Well, maybe, and to be honest, I am resigned to being pirated just like I was resigned when my house was burgled last Christmas. Scum steal, the world is full of scum, some of them steal from me, QED.

But I will not tolerate teenage-anarchist pseudo-moral justification as to why it’s OK to take my stuff without my permission. Steal it if you must (and may you get your bank account, identity and soul phished by Chinese darknet sites while you do it) but don’t claim to be some combination of Julian Assange and my personal press officer because of it.

And I am depressed to the point of writing paralysis by people who steal books while claiming to love them. I recently spoke to an author who saw a self-declared fan on a pirate site saying ‘I love his work so much, let’s upload everything by him!’ He said he couldn’t find the motivation to write for weeks after that. I’m not surprised.

I’m not against free. I love free stuff. I understand that people don’t always have enough money to buy all the books they want (I feel the same about widescreen TVs, actually, but they’re less easy to half-inch). I applaud authors and publishers who choose to experiment with pricing, choose to give away free stuff, choose to try whether people will pay for their work if they can have it free. I have two free stories available right now. Help yourself.

But if pirates are going to deny me my choice of what to make free, I’d appreciate it if they would at least not claim to give a monkey’s for my work or my writing career. If people are going to steal, at least they should be honest about it.

KJ Charles is an intermittently grumpy author and editor living in London, and blogging at The Magpie Lord is available from a wide selection of torrent sites (plus the publisher and Amazon, obviously). A Case of Possession comes out on 28 January.